What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosophers’ answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Derek Michaud on “What Norms and Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Derek Michaud is Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Maine. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Excellence in the philosophy of religion, whether in scholarship, public presentation, or classroom instruction, is sensitive to the history and significance of religious ideas and practices for living human beings. The philosophy of religion is best when it seeks at once to contribute to philosophy as a sub-division thereof and generally to religious studies as one approach among many thereto. Philosophers of religion should remain therefore humble students of both religion and philosophy.

Perhaps we should start with the obvious. When we speak of the “philosophy of religion” we assume, methodologically at least, that religion is not philosophy and philosophy is not religion. In modern Western philosophy, this is basically uncontroversial in theory. A fair approximation of the modern Western ideal of the philosophy of religion might be that it applies the tools of philosophy to the study of religion. As such, its virtues are those of philosophy applied to this particular object of study. These virtues include, above all, the honest search for truth. From this cardinal concern and to this end comes the coherence and explanatory power so often sought by philosophers in practice. As such, excellence in the philosophy of religion seems to amount to no more than what counts as excellence in philosophy in general. But there is a lot to unpack in this all-too-brief definition.

For one, such a conception of the philosophy of religion has always been more aspirational than real; a goal seldom if ever achieved. Not even Ralph Cudworth’s massive True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), the first attempt to lay out a “philosophy of religion” in English (xvii), could resist the urge to stack the deck in favor of a form of the author’s favored religion. Much of the contemporary philosophy of religion follows Cudworth’s lead, usually unknowingly, but without his sensitivity to texts and history. The result is, too often, apologetics by another name. Some working in this vein defend a religious tradition while others work to discredit religion either in whole or part. The best philosophy proceeds in a humbler spirit and does its best to follow the arguments wherever they lead (Euthyphro 14c).

The ideal of rational philosophical investigation is nowhere more prone to self-sabotage than in the philosophy of religion. There are, I think, at least two reasons for this.

First, philosophers, like other human beings, have personal commitments when it comes to religion. This is unavoidable and in most respects welcome. After all, one does not investigate that which one is indifferent toward. However, this does raise the temptation to simply apologize for one’s own presuppositions.

Second, philosophy and religion are closely related by their very natures. This is an unpopular position among contemporary philosophers but consider the following. Religions make metaphysical, epistemic, and axiological claims. For example, claims to prophetic revelation pose serious questions of an epistemological nature as well. If the epistemologist finds it a challenge to account for how we come to know everyday objects the challenge is taken up several notches when considering how one can know the invisible and ultimately unknowable! Consider also the mutual influence of religious ideas and practices in the history of philosophy. For Plato philosophy is a purifying process (Phaedo 64a) leading to becoming like God (Republic 500c-d). Aristotle too understands his philosophy in nominally religious terms, referring to his metaphysics as “theology” (Metaphysics 6.1026a). Throughout most of the history of Western philosophy, in fact, philosophy retained an intentional closeness to religion, oftentimes drawing inspiration from faith and influencing those faiths in turn. This tendency is only magnified when we look beyond the limits of Greek inspiration. For the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, the Madhyamaka of Nagarjuna, or the Lǐxué of Zhu Xi to name but a few, true religion is philosophical.

There is no space in this blog post to argue for it adequately but I think that philosophy and religion are complementary and mutually supportive and often corrective. Philosophy without religion is heartless. Religion without philosophy is mindless.

The philosopher of religion must also be a student of religion. This sounds like it should go without saying but there is no shortage of otherwise rigorous work in the philosophy of religion that makes little or no effort to familiarize itself with the complexity of lived religion in practice or even the linguistic and historical nuances of religious ideas. Many working in the analytic philosophy of the Christian religion, for example, have adopted the practice of exploring the plausibility of literal readings of creedal orthodoxy at the expense of attention to the beliefs and practices of actual living Christians. If the philosophy of religion is to serve more than an insular curiosity it must engage with religion as it is lived and practiced and not merely as it is codified by theologians. This means that philosophers must resist the urge to think of religion as a clear and distinct object of study.

Indeed, religion is a frustratingly complex thing to investigate. Even among religious studies scholars, there is no single agreed upon definition of religion much less uniformity with respect to methodology. The reasons for this are legion. Religion itself, whatever it is, involves or is involved with every aspect of human existence. It is as multifaceted as we ourselves are and lessons can, therefore, be learned by employing every conceivable methodological approach. So, before the philosopher applies their methods to some aspect of religion(s) they must become as well acquainted with their object as possible. This calls for a high level of multidisciplinary competence and cooperation, but above all deep humility.

Developing research levels of competence in all the scientific, behavioral, and humanistic approaches to religion is impossible for a single philosopher. General literacy, however, is difficult but possible and even essential. If they would seek excellence the philosopher of religion must cultivate the humility to remain a student of religion. This means being intentionally open to new insights and new approaches while avoiding the conceit that one has it all figured out. Institutionally this will often mean inhabiting the philosophical and the religious studies spaces simultaneously. At a minimum, it means carrying on an ongoing conversation between fellow philosophers and scholars of religion.

William F. Nietmann on “What Values or Norms Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

William F. Nietmann is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Northern Arizona University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A philosopher probes what makes sense and what doesn’t. Philosophizing is a creative activity. Yet, taught as information concerning what this and that philosopher conclude about some issue makes philosophy a matter of ultimate indifference. Handed-down pedagogical practices and their textbook recitations of philosophy’s history—who said what, when, where—reveal little about what makes philosophy interesting and important. Classes which pour information into the students’ heads might add sophistication concerning the cultured world but likely leave students with the yawning indifference of “to each their own.” Philosophy as information is boring. It becomes exciting when these issues come alive as the student’s own. It happens with Socrates questioning people’s opinions in Plato’s dialogues. Students involved in doing philosophy find it a challenging and worthwhile activity.

Making sense can be cultivated by the practice of Socratic maieutic. It is an unconventional pedagogy because of its seeming ad hoc characteristics. However, improvisation requires knowing the history of philosophy with its resultant intellectual frameworks shaping not only what we take seriously but also the logic of what is thought. Developing a course dominated by the sharp tool of the critical question keeps the professor in a persistent mode of analysis as s/he works in the roles of protagonist or antagonist: “If what you say were true, then wouldn’t such and such be an unwelcomed result?” “How can that be argued if such and such is not the case?” Mastering the “critical question” moves students away from memorizing and repeating information into a confrontation with ideas.

Specific reading assignments vis a vis the issues depend on the philosopher’s interests, but the pertinent original material confronts students with the mind of a person intimately involved with an issue. Students prepare for class by developing critical questions (3″ by 5″ cards). Issues confronted by involved thinkers start to live when students, charged with the responsibility of developing critical questions, test their own reasoning powers. Does the author make sense? Discussion emerges in confrontation between thesis and counter thesis. Unused to such responsibility, students typically resort to asking for information: “I don’t understand this—what did she mean when she said . . . ?” and though the sought-for information might be provided through a mini-lecture, the professorial challenge remains that working with the student in developing the capacity to test the author’s position on a point. It is the challenge of the critical question.

What students take away from a philosophy of religion class, hopefully, is a view of how religious language works. Typically, they expect information about other of the world’s religions upon entering the class. These courses, found in Religious Studies Departments, miss what is demanding and important about the philosophy of religion: Do the underlying presumptions about religion make religious sense? Their analyses may shed light on some part of the intellectual space in which their religious thinking lives.

Thus the course question, “Why would anyone be religious?” anticipates moralistic incentives, first cause explanations, aesthetic awe or wonder, the presence of a seemingly rational universe in attempts at an answer this question, notions widely assumed in “common sense” conversation about religion. Skepticism created in the modern period (seventeenth century onward) challenged supernatural explanations, yielding to natural accounts of any of these phenomena. Unbowed, religious sympathizers defended their theses even melding philosophical outlooks of the modern period into a religious framework. Yet, all pay homage to a notion of an “ultimate truth” in the assertions made. The philosophical groundwork for understanding why or how such thinking originates is addressed in a philosophy of religion course. Thinking, as I do, that objectivistic accounts used in understanding religion are misguided, I would move toward a quite different possibility.

Why should religion exist at all? What forces the rise of religious language in the first place? This starting point brackets question of the objective existence of specific elements of religious beliefs or the efficacy of religious practices in order to reflect what there is in the human condition which forges itself into a religious language. It is a phenomenological probing of what “being human” entails which moves into the domain of hermeneutics.

Philosophically charged linguistic structures inherited in a subject-predicate grammar, Plato works into the subject term, pure Idea, purified or corrupted by dint of predicates incorporated into its life. The essential person is rational soul, eternal and divine, in danger of being compromised by a forever-in-flux corrupting material existence. It is only by striving for ‘the Good, the True, the rationally Beautiful,’ that there is authentic self-fulfillment. Neo-Platonist St. Augustine speaks of “being restless” until finding rest in the perfection of a changeless God. Buddhist priests seek enlightenment. It’s a typical religious theme in world religions aimed at staunching the drain of meaninglessness from life. Unnoticed is that the metaphysical distinction between essence (soul) and existence (body) begs the question of religious relevance. On this point (curiously), New Testament language insists on the impossibility of fleeing from intrinsic meaninglessness but believes in the necessity of a bodily existence (resurrection). Thus, an investigation of “received views” of religion (in the case at hand, intrinsic meaning and intrinsic meaninglessness) is in order: How does the conceptual undergirding affect different sorts of religious languages and lives?

I think that defining boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, spiritual/secular-physical is confused, or misleading, or misdirected. An attempt to open different hermeneutical approaches to understanding religious language transposes the philosophy of religion into a different key. A world dominated by spirits and miracles is poles apart from explanation through chemistry and physics, yet both are inheritances from ancient world thinking. Demythologization has been used in understanding religious language, but rethinking what it is that drives a religious life may be a more appropriate hermeneutic.

If words and the world we know are synonymous, they are generated from within the contexts and situations demanded by our living. The spoken intricacies that go into advancing our sense of life become our lived worlds. Scientific, social, personal worlds are brought to light in their being worded. We learn to speak the languages of each. Thus, “does God exist?” seen as an objective question is not a religious question. As a question of pseudo-objectivity, use of the word “God” is taken out of its context. It makes more sense to think in terms of a religious hermeneutic in which the concept, “God,” emerges as a way to probe and express the unfathomable ultimate meaninglessness of one’s own life.

Rob Byer on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rob Byer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The best philosophy of religion evinces the virtues of open-mindedness, competence, humility, and earnestness. When I was first drawn into philosophy of religion it was these virtues I had observed in the person of my professors that made me desire to study the concept of God, the arguments for God’s existence, and the role of religious belief and behavior in normative judgment. I found these same virtues evident, not always in equal measure, in the classical writings of contemporary analytic philosophers of religion, such as Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, William Rowe, Marilyn McCord Adams, Norman Malcolm. I believe that the best work being done now in philosophy of religion continues to be guided by these virtues. In this post, I’m going to recommend some works and authors that I believe evince these virtues and represent some of the best recent work in philosophy of religion.

The virtue of open-mindedness includes being open about different approaches to the subject matter one studies, being open to including new perspectives, voices, or data previously ignored, and being open to transformational work that might cause the field as a whole to look differently. J. Aaron Simmons’ work at the intersection of Continental and analytic approaches to philosophy of religion is a good example of this virtue in practice. His work on “mashup philosophy of religion” displays an openness and desire to dialogue between these different philosophical traditions. In a similar vein, Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasawa’s recent book Alternative Concepts of God displays a similar openness about new ways to think about the divine. The authors in this compilation range from pantheists to naturalists to traditional theists, and they approach one another in critical, but open, fashion. Several of the works I will highlight when speaking of other virtues also exhibit the virtue of open-mindedness, but I will not recount them here.

Competence in philosophy of religion requires engagement with the best relevant work in other disciplines and in other areas of philosophy. David Alexander’s book Goodness, God and Evil weaves meta-ethics, ontology, and philosophy of language into more general philosophy of religion in an effortless and still careful way. Several chapters also demonstrate the viability of certain Medieval views in meta-ethics and metaphysics, as well as philosophy of religion, and this is a significant boon to contemporary academic philosophy. Though not falling under the umbrella of philosophy of religion directly, Robert Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes 1274 – 1671 illustrates the richness and diversity of metaphysical thought among medieval (and predominantly religious) philosophers that are still relevant and mostly unknown today. Finally, the various works of Helen de Cruz and Johan de Smedt on the intersection of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and religion is exceptionally careful, well-argued, and rewarding. Their A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion is an important, exciting, and above all competent interdisciplinary work.

In the case of the last two virtues, I want to mention how philosophers of religion have exhibited them in my own experience. My own teachers in the field showed these virtues at a nearly perfected level, and allowed me to see the importance of these virtues through their modeling by dialogue and scholarship. Other philosophers of religion that I have met at conferences, and through email, also exhibit these two virtues—at least, the best of them do. Philosophy of religion requires seriousness because the stakes are so serious—what could be more important than trying to figure out the nature of the Divine and arguments for and against its possibility or actuality? If, like many philosophers of religion, one is religious, then what can be more serious and sincere work than faith in search of understanding? Philosophy of religion also requires humility because of the significant, expansive gap between ourselves as finite, imperfect creatures, and the Divine. Human beings should be earnest, but not too earnest and not too sure of ourselves when contemplating the nature of the Divine. And this is okay—as the Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” William James noted over a century ago that “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.” This attitude should be the constant companion to both the earnestness and humility exhibited by the best philosophy and philosophers of religion.

Two other things I want to mention about the state of the field and the virtues that govern it are in celebration of specific examples of open-mindedness. It seems to me that now, more than ever, philosophers of religion are open to traditions outside of the Abrahamic faiths and their various denominations or strands. The inclusion of Confucian, Daoist, Hindu, and Buddhist perspectives in conversation and in scholarship is a welcome sight for which we should all be grateful. The other item, no doubt related to the first, is the interest of professional philosophers of religion to study and engage with work in nearby fields such as the cognitive science of religious belief and behavior, science and religion, and religious studies. All of these fields have innovative, exceptionally sharp, sophisticated scholarship continually being produced that traditional philosophy of religion has largely ignored. The state of the field is now such that more and more philosophers are reading both broadly and deeply, and that can only hold promise for the future of philosophy of religion and the study of the Divine.

Nathan Nobis on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Nathan Nobis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

“Excellent philosophy of religion” is, unsurprisingly, excellent philosophy, about religion.

But what’s excellent philosophy and what are the norms and values associated with it? And what are the philosophical aspects of religion, whatever religions are?

To begin answering these questions, I suggest that philosophy of religion that emphasizes at least these features tends to be more excellent: (1) experiential, (2) integrated, (3) truthful and fair, and (4) done from a sense of wonder.

1. Experiential

Philosophy of religion is better done when it engages with what people actually think about issues: it “meets more people where they are at.” This involves more carefully listening to and seeking to understand how ordinary people understand religion and engaging their concerns. This is likely more interesting and fruitful than the philosophers setting the agenda, and the philosopher is apt to learn quite a lot about what “normal people” find interesting, compelling and troubling.

This approach results in engaging a wider variety of issues and concerns than are typically engaged with, which will make teaching and public engagement better. It might help the specialist too. For example, it is doubtful that many “normal people” who have genuinely struggled with the relations between God and evil have been troubled about whether a mere speck of evil is compatible with God’s existence. If so, “refuting” the so-called “logical” problem of evil didn’t address a “live” concern of many ordinary people who, perhaps, have a better sense of what really matters and so their insights should guide philosophers’ inquiry.

An experiential focus will also lead to more diverse philosophy of religion. Religion is more than just the generic monotheisms that philosophers of religion often focus on, and even those particular monotheisms that the generic theisms are developed from. There are, of course, the many “world religions” that most of us could profit from learning more about in terms of their basic beliefs and practices and then the philosophical complexities and challenges internal and external to these religions. But there are many new beliefs and practices that people adopt or develop to try to give their lives greater meaning, arguably at the heart of religions, that could be engaged with, philosophically: see, e.g., this recent article by psychologist Clay Routledge, “From Astrology to Cult Politics-the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion.”

Again, philosophy of religion should diversify by engaging a wider variety of religious experiences. True, many religions that could be discussed aren’t “live options” for many of us (yet?!). But they are live options for many people. And it’s not like even most of the views we discuss in other areas of philosophy are “live” options for us. Yet somehow we were able to learn about them and teach them. That’s how it should be with religions.

2. Integrated

Philosophy of religion is basically “applied” philosophy: insights from metaphysics, epistemology, value theory and much, much more are applied to questions about religion. Two important applications come from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue and recent discussions of the epistemology of disagreement.

It is still widely believed among the public that non-religious people wouldn’t have much of a moral compass: a religious source is needed for that. But, as Socrates observed, roughly, any religious source would be backed by reasons or not; if not, then judgments from that source would be arbitrary; but if there are reasons, they would be what supports the judgment and make the action wrong or whatever, not the source or authority itself. Recognizing Socrates’ points would contribute to positive interfaith ethical dialogue.

One somewhat established (yet disagreed-upon!) conclusion from the epistemology of disagreement is that when you see that seemingly reasonable people disagree about a topic, that should often lead you to lose confidence in your own views if you have no reason to believe you are more likely correct than anyone else. This principle seems applicable to many religious beliefs and believers, especially when you have really gotten to know people who have different views than your own.

3. Truthful & Fair

Religious believers, including religious disbelievers, have a tendency to be less than fully truthful about the strength of the evidence for their views: sometimes they claim to have far better evidence than they really do: at least, sometimes their evaluations of their beliefs appear to be motivated by concerns other than the evidence. In being truthful about the quality of our evidence, we are being fair: we aren’t demanding that anyone believe or do anything that the evidence does not require.

Believers and disbelievers often insist that it is important that people believe (or disbelieve) whatever religious views they hold, but they might not be truthful about the evidence in favor of thinking this: perhaps “apatheism,” a view that we should be apathetic or indifferent to religious belief (and disbelief), is a reasonable response, given the elusive and evasive kinds of evidence here, combined with the recognition of the global and historical disagreements about religions.

There is also a tendency for some people to unfairly think that religious beliefs simpliciter or in general are the cause of many moral and social ills (e.g., unfair discriminations, lack of environmental concern, xenophobia, etc.), instead of various particular religious beliefs or beliefs about morality and social policy that, for whatever reasons, some but certainly not all believers in a particular religion accept. These critics of religion also tend to ignore that secular and irreligious perspectives are in no way uniformly correlated with (and certainly don’t cause) a consistent and reliable seeking of justice, fairness, caring and any other moral and intellectual virtues. In short, there are good and bad people among the religious, the irreligious and the apathetic, and we should focus on those beliefs, attitudes, and actions that make them good or bad, not the religious or irreligious beliefs that are, at best, only contingently related to those good and bad qualities.

4. Wonder

In sum, it’s important to not forget that religious views are, in a sense, philosophical views. In that way, Bertrand Russell’s conclusions on the value of philosophy are worth reviewing:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Russell, of course, was famously opposed to most religious belief, perhaps for reasons that were ultimately unfair and uncharitable to religions. His insights here, however, combined with some Aristotle, and some disagreements-induced healthy skepticism and general fairness towards the variety of views that are considered philosophical, might lead to a different view about philosophy of religion: philosophy of religion should begin with and sustain a sense of wonder and amazement that human beings have developed, through religions, so many different ways to seek meaning and purpose. Philosophy of religion at its best involves the honest and rigorous attempts to puzzle through all the philosophical challenges that arise from these attempts.

Michael Barnes Norton on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Michael Barnes Norton Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion occupies a complicated position at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and religious studies, so clearly identifying the discipline’s central norms and values is a difficult task. Several previous respondents have addressed standards that apply to philosophical discourse generally; adding to their admirable accounts would be redundant on my part. So let me start by turning to the discipline’s object of inquiry. The name “philosophy of religion” would suggest that “religion” is this object, such that the discipline’s constitutive question would be “What is ‘religion’?” Yet this question has historically not been taken up frequently by philosophers of religion, who more often take the concept of religion for granted and have instead directed their attention to particular topics, such as the existence and nature of God, the possibility of miracles, or the problem of evil. Of course, inquiry into such questions belongs squarely within the bounds of philosophy of religion if for no other reason than that such inquiry has played a prominent role for much of the history of the discipline. But as the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, as many local communities become more diverse, and especially as academic philosophy in the “West” becomes more conscious of its culturally-situated assumptions, philosophy of religion has a unique responsibility to broaden its scope and reconsider its values and goals.

Richard King has criticized philosophy of religion’s role as “border control” for philosophy’s intellectual territory.1.According to his argument, it’s often the implicit task of philosophy of religion to sort the “philosophical” from the “non-philosophical” content of traditions lying outside the heritage of Western philosophy. Philosophy of religion may present the former as properly philosophical ideas that happen to arise within the context of religious traditions, while examples of the latter can be scrutinized as examples of mere belief—objects for philosophy without quite being objects of philosophy. One problem arising from this is that ideas and questions that get sorted into the second group when they arise in non-Western traditions sometimes show up in the first group by virtue of their place in the Western philosophical canon. Would Descartes’s Meditations, for instance, make it past the border control area of philosophy of religion into mainstream Western epistemological discourse if it were a product of South Asian thought that Anglo-American philosophers only began to engage with relatively recently?

What this criticism highlights, I think, is philosophy of religion’s need to deal responsibly and respectfully with a diverse set of subjects and audiences, each of whose particular perspectives ought to bear on its disciplinary standards of excellence. I would identify three groups to be primary stakeholders in the practice of philosophy of religion in this sense: the religious communities about whose practices and beliefs it speaks, those seeking to understand religious commitments from a disinterested perspective, and the academic philosophical community more narrowly.

First and foremost, excellent philosophy of religion takes religion (however it understands it) seriously and, as much as possible, on its own terms. Without eschewing the critical perspective characteristic of philosophy, the discipline should not hastily dismiss the significance of religious practice and belief in the lives of individuals, communities, and societies. This does not mean that the coherence or value of these practices and beliefs should be granted prima facie, but it does mean that reductionist accounts of religion that do not at least deem the commitments and motivations of religious adherents as worthy of careful attention should be avoided. The insights of contemporary religious studies scholarship can be especially helpful on this front, and indeed some of the best philosophy of religion engages constructively with this scholarship.

Second, philosophy of religion’s obligation to engage attentively with religious communities carries over to an obligation to represent the beliefs and practices of those communities honestly and accurately to those outside them. Alongside its critical role, philosophy of religion serves a descriptive one, providing both academic and general audiences with fair-minded accounts of religions and their relationships to other objects of philosophical study. This function can be particularly beneficial in conversation with non-religious interlocutors who are inclined to be suspicious or dismissive of religion as a matter of principle. Following the model of Schleiermacher’s speeches to religion’s “cultured despisers”—which despite its generally Christian-apologetic perspective contains some surprisingly pluralist claims—contemporary philosophy of religion is well positioned to provide accounts of religious beliefs and practices to audiences skeptical of their continued value, not with a view to persuade such audiences of religion’s value but at least to better inform discourse about it.

Third, as the bulk of the arguments offered by contemporary philosophers of religion are oriented primarily toward other philosophers, the aim of these arguments should be to provide not only accurate accounts but also critical evaluations of the actualities of and possibilities for religious beliefs and practices, as well as the objects of those beliefs and practices. The challenge for the discipline as a branch of academic philosophy—one that should be explicitly and continually taken up as a goal not yet met—is to construct these arguments such that they are integrable into other areas of philosophical discourse without doing so in the “border control” mode that King criticizes. That is, philosophy of religion ought, among other things, to provide paths for religions to enter philosophical inquiry as subjects, not merely as objects of investigation.

Ultimately, we ought to understand the responsibilities of philosophy of religion as shaped by attention to all the complexities of religious life in the real world; this will include attention to urgent social concerns such as poverty, war, and of course climate change. Certainly not every work in philosophy of religion can or should engage directly with these issues, but neither should any work be wholly disconnected from them. Excellent philosophy of religion, whatever its specific focus, should have a place within a network of discourse and responsibility that at least aspires to comprehensiveness, and this will necessarily include reflection on the ways it conceives of its object.

Mor Segev on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Mor Segev is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Presuming neither to capture all that excellence in the philosophy of religion requires or consists of, nor to identify a novel criterion for such excellence, I should like to zero in on one feature that I find important and personally instructive.

It seems to me that excellent philosophy of religion generally exhibits sensitivity to the mutual impact between the subdiscipline and other areas in philosophy. The prominent role that other parts of philosophy play in constructing philosophical arguments and views on matters of religion is often obvious. We may recognize it, for example, in a debate on the problem of evil appealing to the nature of goodness as understood by different ethical theories, or in discussions of the cosmological argument for God’s existence drawing on work in the metaphysics of causation. Such appeals seem appropriate, and one would indeed expect them to occur, either explicitly or implicitly, in excellent inquiries into these issues.

The influence, however, goes in the opposite direction as well. Core issues in the philosophy of religion, and the discussion of these issues in the history of ideas, can have important and direct, if sometimes inconspicuous, effects on the treatment of other philosophical issues. One potentially excellent application of the philosophy of religion, then, consists of illuminating philosophical questions concerning matters other than religion.

Take the case of political philosophy. In considering what political organization ought to look like, we should not disregard the historically ubiquitous presence in human society of religious organized practices and institutions. We must address, more specifically, the benefit of these social features for general welfare, and doing so would seem to depend, in large part, on our understanding of the religious concepts and beliefs associated with them.

It is at points such as this that philosophy of religion, properly implemented, becomes useful. Can religious institutions and practices convey beneficial ideas or encourage positive behavior? Can religion impart or lead to truths otherwise unavailable to members of the political community? Does religious faith potentially endow our lives with meaning? Are certain religious beliefs needed for human flourishing, or are they irrelevant or even harmful to it? The stance taken by political theorists on issues such as these could help to orient them toward the goals potentially worthy of being pursued by, and for, political communities and their members.

Our stance on issues in the philosophy of religion, then, informs our views of, e.g., political affairs. By the same token, clarifying the stance taken on such issues by prominent figures in the history of philosophy contributes to our understanding of their overall thinking (in a recent book, I examined Aristotle’s views on divinity and the content of traditional religion, and argued that those views help to clarify both the place of traditional religion in his political theory and his political and ethical theories more generally).

In these ways and others, the philosophy of religion proves useful for political theory as well as for our understanding of the history of ethical and political philosophy. Of course, philosophical views on matters of religion can also be relevant, and have been applied, to discussions in other subfields. Contributions to epistemology include, for instance, philosophical analyses of types of distinctly religious experience. In aesthetics, considering the beauty engendered by imitating divine creation has been viewed as informing our view of the nature, value and purpose of art.

Properly applying resources developed through work in the philosophy of religion, to be sure, requires caution. Lurking dangers include, in the case of applications to discussions in the history of philosophy, anachronism and cultural insensitivity. Heeding such qualifications, however, there is much that the philosophy of religion has to offer.

Given the great variety of possible interconnections along the lines described so far, awareness of significant points of contact between the philosophy of religion and other philosophical subfields seems an important mark of excellence in the philosophy of religion (and of excellence in those other subfields). Such an awareness need not manifest itself in every case in direct engagement with work in other domains. Quite plausibly, one could conclude correctly, in a given case, that drawing connections between the topic at hand and discussions in other areas is either unwarranted or unhelpful. The decision, however, would ideally be informed by a careful consideration of the ways in which the philosophical study of religion might effectively use, and be helpfully used by, other philosophical subdisciplines.

Duncan Pritchard on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Duncan Pritchard is Chancellor’s Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Wittgenstein taught us that the resolution to philosophical difficulties often lies in questioning the presuppositions that generate the puzzle in the first place. It can seem that our everyday practices are generating contradictions, but in fact these conundra are the result of the illicit import of dubious philosophical claims. Once these philosophical claims are eliminated, the puzzle disappears.

Now one might think that philosophers of religion are not well-placed to exploit such a methodology, given that religious conviction is no longer orthodoxy (at least in the western world anyway), and hence isn’t obviously ‘everyday’ anymore. But the methodology is nonetheless applicable, at least in certain cases. I want to canvass support for one such case, which is the debate regarding the rationality of religious belief.

Here is a common way of setting up the issue. Religious belief, unlike other kinds of belief that are epistemically paradigmatic (like everyday perceptual belief, for example), presupposes basic religious commitments (such as in God’s existence). Those basic religious commitments, however, lack any independent rational basis. Hence, there is a fundamental problem with the rationality of religious belief.

Standard responses to the problem of rationality of religious belief effectively concede this set-up. This is clearest with evidentialist responses to this problem, for example, since they respond by arguing that there is an evidential basis for the basic religious convictions in play (e.g., that there are logical proofs for God’s existence). But other standard responses to this issue also concede the set-up, at least implicitly. Reformed epistemology, for example, agrees that basic religious belief is in need of an adequate epistemic grounding, but supplies this grounding via appeal to an externalist epistemology. Fideism, in contrast, agrees that basic religious belief lacks an adequate epistemic grounding, unlike belief in general, but argues nonetheless that this is not a bar against religious belief (since, unlike belief more generally, it does not stand in need of an epistemic grounding).

But suppose we question the framework behind this puzzle? Wittgenstein provides us with the resources to do just this. In his final notebooks, published as On Certainty, Wittgenstein argues for a radical conception of the nature of rational evaluation. A staple part of radical scepticism, at least since Descartes’ Meditations, has been to rationally evaluate all of our beliefs at once and find them wanting. In contrast, anti-scepticism has been characterised by the project of evaluating all our beliefs at once and thereby determining their positive epistemic status. Both projects seem entirely coherent. Wittgenstein argues, however, that they are chimeric.

Working through a series of examples, Wittgenstein shows that the very idea of a universal rational evaluation is simply incoherent, and not at all rooted in our ordinary epistemic practices (where all rational evaluation is essentially local). Rational evaluations instead always take place against a backdrop of basic ‘hinge’ commitments that are needed in order for rational evaluation for occur, and which as a consequence cannot be themselves rationally evaluated. Moreover, Wittgenstein shows that this is not an incidental feature of our epistemic practices, as if we could engage in fully general rational evaluations if only we were more consistent, imaginative, intelligent, and so on. Rather it is in the very nature of a rational evaluation that it takes place relative to these arational hinge commitments. It follows that both radical scepticism, and for that matter traditional forms of anti-scepticism, both trade on a faulty philosophical picture. In particular, they both presuppose the idea that fully general rational evaluations are coherent, something which Wittgenstein has shown to be in fact a dubious philosophical claim that is entirely disconnected from our everyday epistemic practices.

Notice how the Wittgensteinian claim alters our understanding of the supposed problem of the rationality of religious belief. That puzzle posed a challenge to show how basic religious belief could satisfy the epistemic standards that other, epistemically paradigmatic, forms of belief enjoy. So evidentialism is concerned with showing that basic religious belief enjoys an independent rational basis. Reformed epistemology contends that although basic religious belief lacks an independent rational basis, this doesn’t matter because (like other forms of belief) it enjoys an externalist epistemic basis that isn’t specifically rational. Fideism concedes that religious belief lacks an adequate epistemic basis, unlike epistemically paradigmatic forms of belief, but argues nonetheless that religious belief is not irrational. If Wittgenstein is right, then all of these responses to this puzzle about the rationality of religious belief are misguided.

In particular, all of these standard responses to the puzzle rest on the same mistake, which is to suppose that it is in the nature of epistemically paradigmatic everyday belief that it doesn’t presuppose ariatonal hinge commitments. Once we recognise that our everyday beliefs presuppose hinge commitments in this way, then that changes how we view the putative arationality of religious belief. It cannot now be a complaint against religious belief that it presupposes arational religious hinge commitments if it is true of all belief that it incorporates arational hinge commitments. Reformed epistemologists famously offer a parity argument in favour of religious belief, to the effect that belief of this kind is on an epistemic par with everyday belief, where the latter is to be reconceived along broadly epistemic externalist lines. What Wittgenstein is offering—which is a line of argument that I think he gets from earlier work by John Henry Newman, most notably his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent—is a very different kind of parity argument. Religious belief, like belief more generally, can be fully rational even though, like everyday belief, it presupposes arational hinge commitments. The point is that there’s no need to bring in epistemic externalism, or indeed any kind of epistemic revisionism, in order to account for the rationality of religious belief. Rather, the very problem that was thought to afflict this kind of belief trades on an implausible account of our everyday epistemic practices. Once this faulty picture is rejected, then the puzzle dissolves.

Adam Green on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Adam Green is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Azusa Pacific University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Let us begin with a toy argument. “Either God exists or the moon is made of cheese. The moon is not made of cheese. Therefore, God exists.” This is not an example of excellent philosophy of religion. The argument is valid, of course. If God exists, the argument is sound as well. These formal features, however, aren’t anywhere near sufficient for excellence. If we were to recast this argument in a formal apparatus more difficult to wield than a disjunctive syllogism, giving the modally quantified argument from trans-world non-cheesiness perhaps, it would still not be the case that this more difficult to wield version of this argument would count as excellent philosophy of religion.

Here’s another example. A fantasy novelist thinks up a universe in which the ground is divine and when it is worshipped, it oozes life into the plants that grow on its surface. I’m sure that a talented enough novelist could do something with the idea. It may even be that a philosopher of religion could run a thought experiment that incorporated it into one step of a larger argument (e.g. on God’s relationship to nature and environmental ethics). By itself, however, an imaginative construction of an alternative moral and religious system isn’t excellent philosophy of religion. It’s simply fantasy.

Since this is a blog post, let’s cut to the chase a bit. What does make for good philosophy of religion, especially if neither excellence in formal reasoning nor imaginative metaphysical speculations is sufficient for it? In a word, relevance. That is, relevance to the attempts of actual people to answer the big questions at the heart of philosophy of religion regarding whether the natural is all there is, whether there is a God or some other divine feature of reality, how our answers to the first two questions affect moral agency and the meaning of life, etc. Furthermore, excellent philosophy of religion is judged in terms of our attempts to not only answer these questions to our own satisfaction but to explain, if not convince, interested others of the relevance of our answers to their own attempts to grapple with these questions.

If one were to boil this answer down to how it might apply to an argument such as, say, the one that opened this blog post, one would put it something like this. A good argument in the philosophy of religion must be a valid/ cogent argument that moves from premises one’s interlocutors can reasonably be expected to grant to a non-trivial conclusion that contributes towards our answering one or more of the big questions that anchor the field. That’s a sketch rather than a set of conditions meant to capture all cases and brook no counterexamples, but it is enough to see why both of our examples don’t count as excellent philosophy of religion. The argument to God’s existence from non-cheesiness uses a premise that no one in any doubt as to God’s existence would ever accept. The only folks who would reasonably accept the first premise are those who are independently confident of the conclusion. Likewise, by itself a fantasy novelist’s flights of fancy aren’t attempts to answer our serious questions about our world. They must be brought to bear in helping us furnish at least possible answers to our questions about our world before they count as contributing to the philosophy of religion.

On this way of looking at things, what counts as excellent philosophy of religion is a moving target with a historical anchor. On the one hand, philosophy of religion grows from a set of questions that we inherit along with various attempts to answer them. Our understanding of the questions might change and develop over time. Perhaps some questions get subtracted from the core and others get added, but nonetheless the philosophy of religion is a continuing dialogue that extends over time. Now, of course, at any given point in time, it is not always one conversation, and the Venn diagram overlap between the questions being asked in different conversations can be greater or lesser. This complicates the picture, but does not falsify it.

On the other hand, who the interested parties are who should be included in one’s class of interlocutors and what premises are contestable changes over time. Aquinas’ five ways are arguments for God’s existence that end with the line “and this everyone understands to be God”. I think Aquinas’ arguments counted as excellent philosophy of religion relative to his time because everyone who would have counted as a relevant interlocutor for Aquinas would have reasonably granted that the conclusions of his arguments pointed to God. Giving those same arguments now, however, requires bolstering premises that are not as obvious to present day readers and perhaps trying to bridge the gap between unmoved movers or uncaused causes and God.

Within the current scene, there is growing discontent in some quarters with the state of philosophy of religion. Since Plantinga, many Christians have entered the field, skewing the literatures of the genre in ways reflective of their distinctively Christian views and interests. The discontents cry foul, pointing out that many contrary points of view are being neglected. One can imagine them putting the complaint this way, “Though often formally competent and sometimes quite philosophically imaginative, work like this does not make philosophy of religion as a discipline excellent.”

From within the perspective briefly outlined here, I think we can say two things about the situation. On the one hand, excellent philosophy of religion is relative to the attempts of actual people to answer the big questions. So, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a bunch of Christians wanting to develop their Christian-informed answers nor is there any particular reason to sequester such attempts into some other non-philosophical discipline (e.g. “oh, they’re doing theology, not philosophy”). Likewise, the idea that every square of logical space ought to be explored and published on equally is at best naïve. People write about these things because they’re trying to answer the big questions, and attempts to answer the big questions aren’t going to be distributed evenly across the vast logical space of possible answers. Rather, they’re going to clump, building on and critiquing attempts to answer these questions that have come before. That doesn’t mean that novel explorations are either off limits or intrinsically undesirable, but the idea that we can have a field that develops all possible answers with indifference, somehow investing our efforts in ways that float free from what people actually suspect the answers to be is, once again, fantasy.

On the other hand, the discontent of the discontent signals where the moving target of excellence in the philosophy of religion is moving, of who wants to be included in the class of relevant interlocutors, and of how their perspectives might end up shifting the standards of evaluation in the field. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to see the metrics of plausibility shift in sync with the demographics of participation either.

William F. Nietmann on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

William F. Nietmann is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Northern Arizona University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A philosopher probes what makes sense and what doesn’t. Philosophizing is a creative activity. Yet, taught as information concerning what this and that philosopher conclude about some issue makes philosophy a matter of ultimate indifference. Handed-down pedagogical practices and their textbook recitations of philosophy’s history—who said what, when, where—reveal little about what makes philosophy interesting and important. Classes which pour information into the students’ heads might add sophistication concerning the cultured world but likely leave students with the yawning indifference of “to each their own.” Philosophy as information is boring. It becomes exciting when these issues come alive as the student’s own. It happens with Socrates questioning people’s opinions in Plato’s dialogues. Students involved in doing philosophy find it a challenging and worthwhile activity.

Making sense can be cultivated by the practice of Socratic maieutic. It is an unconventional pedagogy because of its seeming ad hoc characteristics. However, improvisation requires knowing the history of philosophy with its resultant intellectual frameworks shaping not only what we take seriously but also the logic of what is thought. Developing a course dominated by the sharp tool of the critical question keeps the professor in a persistent mode of analysis as s/he works in the roles of protagonist or antagonist: “If what you say were true, then wouldn’t such and such be an unwelcomed result?” “How can that be argued if such and such is not the case?” Mastering the “critical question” moves students away from memorizing and repeating information into a confrontation with ideas.

Specific reading assignments vis a vis the issues depend on the philosopher’s interests, but the pertinent original material confronts students with the mind of a person intimately involved with an issue. Students prepare for class by developing critical questions (3″ by 5″ cards). Issues confronted by involved thinkers start to live when students, charged with the responsibility of developing critical questions, test their own reasoning powers. Does the author make sense? Discussion emerges in confrontation between thesis and counter thesis. Unused to such responsibility, students typically resort to asking for information: “I don’t understand this—what did she mean when she said . . . ?” and though the sought-for information might be provided through a mini-lecture, the professorial challenge remains that working with the student in developing the capacity to test the author’s position on a point. It is the challenge of the critical question.

What students take away from a philosophy of religion class, hopefully, is a view of how religious language works. Typically, they expect information about other of the world’s religions upon entering the class. These courses, found in Religious Studies Departments, miss what is demanding and important about the philosophy of religion: Do the underlying presumptions about religion make religious sense? Their analyses may shed light on some part of the intellectual space in which their religious thinking lives.

Thus the course question, “Why would anyone be religious?” anticipates moralistic incentives, first cause explanations, aesthetic awe or wonder, the presence of a seemingly rational universe in attempts at an answer this question, notions widely assumed in “common sense” conversation about religion. Skepticism created in the modern period (seventeenth century onward) challenged supernatural explanations, yielding to natural accounts of any of these phenomena. Unbowed, religious sympathizers defended their theses even melding philosophical outlooks of the modern period into a religious framework. Yet, all pay homage to a notion of an “ultimate truth” in the assertions made. The philosophical groundwork for understanding why or how such thinking originates is addressed in a philosophy of religion course. Thinking, as I do, that objectivistic accounts used in understanding religion are misguided, I would move toward a quite different possibility.

Why should religion exist at all? What forces the rise of religious language in the first place? This starting point brackets question of the objective existence of specific elements of religious beliefs or the efficacy of religious practices in order to reflect what there is in the human condition which forges itself into a religious language. It is a phenomenological probing of what “being human” entails which moves into the domain of hermeneutics.

Philosophically charged linguistic structures inherited in a subject-predicate grammar, Plato works into the subject term, pure Idea, purified or corrupted by dint of predicates incorporated into its life. The essential person is rational soul, eternal and divine, in danger of being compromised by a forever-in-flux corrupting material existence. It is only by striving for ‘the Good, the True, the rationally Beautiful,’ that there is authentic self-fulfillment. Neo-Platonist St. Augustine speaks of “being restless” until finding rest in the perfection of a changeless God. Buddhist priests seek enlightenment. It’s a typical religious theme in world religions aimed at staunching the drain of meaninglessness from life. Unnoticed is that the metaphysical distinction between essence (soul) and existence (body) begs the question of religious relevance. On this point (curiously), New Testament language insists on the impossibility of fleeing from intrinsic meaninglessness but believes in the necessity of a bodily existence (resurrection). Thus, an investigation of “received views” of religion is in order. What undergirds the different sorts of religious languages and lives?

I think that defining boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, spiritual/secular-physical is confused, or misleading, or misdirected. Some contemporary thinkers attempt to, thus opening a different hermeneutical approach to understanding religious language, something outside the Platonistic-types of interpretative analyses usually assumed. A world dominated by spirits and miracles is poles apart from explanation through chemistry and physics, but both may be ancient world thinking. Demythologization has been used in understanding religious language, but rethinking what it is that drives a religious life may be a more appropriate hermeneutic.

If words and the world we know are synonymous, they are generated from within the contexts and situations demanded by our living. The spoken intricacies that go into advancing our sense of life become our lived worlds. Scientific, social, personal worlds are brought to light in their being worded. We learn to speak the languages of each. Thus, “does God exist?” seen as an objective question is not a religious question. As a question of pseudo-objectivity, use of the word “God” is taken out of its context. It makes more sense to think in terms of a religious hermeneutic in which the concept, “God,” emerges as a way to probe and express the unfathomable ultimate meaninglessness of one’s own life.

Tadd Ruetenik on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Tadd Ruetenik is Professor of Philosophy at St. Ambrose University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I find that William James’ definition of philosophy is a good start in defining an excellent philosophy of religion. In Pragmatism, he says that philosophy is “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (1). This might at first seem too common and vague, amounting to little more than a fire-side chat model of philosophy. We can imagine people rambling some thought and then ending with “and that’s just my philosophy,” to the approving nods of those who are merely waiting their own turn to express theirs. But this view is largely conditioned by an individualistic understanding of James, itself conditioned by an individualistic culture in which beliefs are thought of as the kinds of things that should be insulated from any critical attention.

We must note that James’ definition is based on the assumption that other human beings are indeed part of the cosmoi that pushes and presses. So while our philosophy is indeed our individual expression, this expression is conditioned by the individual expressions of others. And this is just as much the case when we think of a philosophy of religion. In this sense, philosophy of religion is our individual way of feeling the push and pressure of the cosmos, subjected to a concurrent push and pressure of other individuals in the cosmos. As strange as it might sound, for James, it is not the case that philosophy of religion is a subset of philosophy, but rather that philosophy is a subset of philosophy of religion. For James, experience proceeds by subtraction. We experience everything together, in all its relations, and then separate things based on selective interest. The religious questions for him are the largest questions, the everything questions.

This largest of questions was addressed by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, who talked about sorge, a German word often translated unhelpfully as “solicitude,” which, perhaps even more unhelpfully, is then also rendered as “anxious care.” But one doesn’t need to be fretting to be religious. The idea is that the human being’s fundamental relation to the world is one in which, to put it both abstractly and precisely, things matter.

I don’t know how helpful this will be, but I offer that the best way to render this fundamental idea is to say that, in the largest sense, a philosophy of religion is a consideration of to what extent the universe gives a shit. Perhaps the universe gives a shit about itself, or gives a shit about certain beings within itself, or gives a shit about certain subclass of these beings called human, or perhaps gives a shit only about a subclass within that of human beings. The scope of this theory can be both large enough and limited enough to be useful. It can suggest that, through a theory of karmic involvement, the universe gives a shit about justice. Or it can postulate that there exists a personal God who gives a shit about justice in our world. Or it can postulate that there exists a God who so gave a shit about the world that he sent His only Son so that … .

What this theory excludes from being religious is an understanding of the cosmos according to which the cosmos simply does not give a shit. It is not clear if it is possible for a philosopher even to maintain such a theory, since to maintain something is to give a shit whether it is true. I suppose they could respond to all such criticism by saying, “well, that’s just my philosophy.”

But to return to James, we see a good formulation of a philosophy of religion coming from his Varieties of Religious Experience:

The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts:

1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers. (551-552)

There are parts of this definition that need to be understood with nuance. In some Native American religions the idea that we are naturally wrong need not be understood as implying a dramatic Fall that requires a heroic savior, but rather only a disequilibrium that requires an adjustment. In that case, the wrongness can be saved by an appropriate ritual. It is difficult, however, for me to imagine a religious universe that did not have this salvific aspect, which is to say, did not have any give-a-shitedness (gebensheissenheit?) built into it. I can imagine a universe in which our descriptions can be marked as true or otherwise. But in this case it would be difficult to see why we would give a shit if the description were true. James’ reference to higher powers might seem gratuitous, since our own questioning of the cosmos could show that, in fact, there exists one thing that gives a shit. But we have to understand that, for James — the son of the religious socialist Henry James the Elder — the cosmos is a dynamic and human place. In such a world the higher power is the sense of connection with others, the sense that, despite differences in individual philosophies, there is a natural desire to leave warring and disunity for peace and unity, whether permanent or transitory in realization. An excellent philosophy of religion is one that gives enough of a shit to account for both the wrongness and the propriety of the universe, and the relations among those existing in it.

WORKS CITED
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. (New York: The Modern Library) 1994.
James, William. Pragmatism. (New York: Dover Publications) 1995.